If you are like me, you continue to be fascinated by stories of near-death experiences. There have been over 20 million reports of near-death experiences (NDEs) spanning every culture, every religion, people who claim to be atheists or agnostics, even those who have had no exposure to religion. It is amazing fact that the experiences surrounding these NDEs are remarkably similar for all those who have been through one of these occurrences.
I’ll admit, one of the reasons I’m fascinated is my own mother had a NDE two years before she actually passed away. She was so excited to share with me the incredible knowledge that happened after going through this at the age of 80.
Many, like my mother, report seeing a light and a tunnel. Most say they see family members who are there to greet them. They talk about a “life review,” not from a position of judgment but of learning how many moments in life could have resulted in better choices being made, especially related to how each decision and choice we make impacts others.
Dr. Mary Neal said of her experience, “Dying is merely going home.” She had drowned and was underwater for 30 minutes before being given CPR. She recalls that everything she learned was about a loving and forgiving God and being with God fills you with a sense of going home.
I’m intrigued and at the same time amazed by these stories. Questions arise, such as: Are NDEs proof there is a Heaven? Is this just a thing in our mind that happens based on our belief system and our life experiences? How can this happen to so many and not be legitimate?
The actual definition of a near-death experience is simple. It is a profound psychological and spiritual experience that normally occurs during intense situations such as a clinical death or trauma, causing sensations including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, peace, and warmth surrounded by the presence of light.
Let me describe about one I recently read from a man who was in a car accident twenty years ago which led to the death of his wife, whom he adored, and his six-month-old baby boy. His seven-year-old son survived, by the grace of God. He himself was in intensive care for three months and suffered multiple injuries and surgeries before going to a rehab facility. Six months after the accident he was able to go home. He was in a wheelchair. He had lost one leg and had multiple surgeries and infections making his recovery almost unbearable. What was interesting to me is how he shares so vividly the event that happened twenty years ago, recalling every detail remembering as if it had happened yesterday. There was no question in his mind: He had died, and came back from death.
Initially, he recounted at the moment of the accident he heard his son crying and then realized he did not hear his baby or his wife. The next memory is a vivid experience of dying and entering Heaven. He shared how he saw his wife and she was happy and beautiful. His first thought was: great, she’s OK. Then he is hit with a realization that neither of them is OK.
He recalled the car rolling several times. In spite of this he felt no pain. He only felt love and a sense of overwhelming peace. He said the place surrounding him was breathtakingly beautiful. Next, he remembers feeling overwhelmed with guilt and sadness after realizing this whole incident was his fault. He had instantly remembered falling asleep at the wheel for just a moment (which is why the accident occurred). At that moment he saw a crib and realized his baby was sleeping. He reached down for his son and held him next to his heart. He felt his heart beating and smelled his hair, and was overwhelmed with love. He recognized this amazing feeling of being loved and forgiven. He was told that there is no reason for blame; “everything that happens is according to my plan.” He was surrounded by love and gave his son back to love. This feeling of not wanting to leave this was overpowering. Yet he knew he had to leave.
Ninety percent of those who have experienced a near-death experience claim they are certain that life continues after death. A book entitled Proof of Heaven, written by Dr. Eben Alexander, has received a huge reaction across the world on the subject of near-death experiences. Dr. Eben is a trained neurosurgeon. He is expected to know what is possible and not possible about human consciousness. He fell into a deep coma where the entire cortex, the part of the brain that registers thoughts and emotion, was eaten away by e. coli bacteria. In spite of this or because of it, he recalls an encounter with God and an angelic figure allowing a view of Heaven. He remembers the feeling of unconditional love that surrounded him.
One of history’s most memorable pontiffs, Pope Gregory the Great, recorded near-death experiences in a book called Dialogues. Written in the sixth century, this book contains striking similarities to what is reported by the millions of survivors today.
My takeaway from these stories is this. Life does exist after death and these stories are a form of validation to those who have experienced them. Many people wonder, since we are sinners, if God is upset or angry at us because of our sins. As a result of this worry, we fear dying and being punished by God. Consequently, we embrace these stories of NDEs because they seem to suggest another possible fate for us sinners. Those who experienced them talk about their encounters with a very loving and forgiving God.
In reality, they validate what we as Catholics already know. God is all-knowing and loving and offers forgiveness for sins. He sent his son, Jesus, to ensure forgiveness is possible.
Scientists continue to be skeptical, but the more that science and medicine advance in saving people’s lives so close to death and continue to improve ways to save us, the more we will continue to hear about these NDEs.
By way of a personal anecdote regarding this phenomenon, I can only offer what my mother told me. Certain she was in Heaven, she saw her parents, who had died in her teens. She knew she was in the presence of Jesus because she felt an overwhelming sense of love. She knew Heaven was a reality. “Think back on the most amazing moment in your life Cathy,” she said. “Multiply that by a billion, and you still have not come close to what it feels like to be in the presence of the perfect love of God and His son, Jesus.”
In Revelation 2: 21, the apostle John gives a firsthand account of the glory and immensity of the power and beauty of Heaven. There are times when even he has trouble putting into words but clearly it seems his vision of Heaven is overwhelming to him.
As a Catholic, I don’t have trouble finding words for what it points to in our faith. The same thing that has fired the imagination of every Catholic writer from Boethius to Dante to Chaucer to Tolkien: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” Amen.
Copyright 2019 Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh